Mark McDermott

Cheer for Children helps in hard times

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Five-year-old Braza Estrada is adorned with a holiday tattoo by Cheer for Children volunteer Vanessa Cardona at the annual Christmas party at Harbor UCLA hospital Saturday. Photo by Mark McDermott

Five-year-old Braza Estrada is adorned with a holiday tattoo by Cheer for Children volunteer Vanessa Cardona at the annual Christmas party at Harbor UCLA hospital Saturday. Photo by Mark McDermott

Santa was dancing.

He was on the sixth floor of the Harbor UCLA Medical Center, outside the pediatric unit, where dozens of children were spending the holiday fighting illness and injury. It wasn’t a naturally cheerful place. But as 13-year-old Alonzo Jimenez shuffled carefully into the room, he couldn’t help but smile. He pulled along his IV and shyly approached Santa, who spun around from his pile of gifts and happily produced one just for Alonzo.

Alonzo’s father, Domingo Jimenez, said his son was surprised to find Santa here, of all places.

“Better than someplace else!” he said.

Santa had his reasons for being here. He’d come with Cheer for Children, the Redondo-based charity that helps struggling families through the holidays. Once upon a time, this particular Santa had been among those children who were in need of cheer. In fact, downstairs, on the first floor of the hospital – where nearly 1,000 children would come and receive food and gifts at the Cheer for Children Christmas party – Santa’s two brothers, David and Moses, were serving as elves.

These three brothers weren’t from the North Pole, but from Florida. Nine years ago, when they’d arrived in the South Bay with their mother, Kathleen Sturm, the family had nothing. Kathleen Sturm remembers some of the low times back then – such as going through dumpsters in the back of grocery stores in order to feed her children. But no time was lower than Christmas, when she worried not only about feeding her children but also providing presents and some semblance of a real holiday.

Cheer for Children was there for the Sturms. The organization – which “adopted” 135 families again this year – bought presents and gave the family food and gift certificates that lasted all the way through March. But Cheer gave the family another gift that is still reaping rewards far beyond anything material.

“They embraced us and treated us with respect, like we were ‘normal’ people and not just poor people,” Kathleen Sturm said. “They made us feel like we had integrity.”

One of the hardest parts of being down on your luck, Sturm said, is believing that somehow you don’t deserve any better. The Sturms were dirt poor for three years, and all through that time, Cheer for Children lent a helping hand. In so doing, they helped the family believe that something better was possible.

“It motivates you to step up and push yourself a little harder,” Sturm said “If these people embraced us…other people would, too. It really worked.”

Now, every member of the family has a good job – one son works for MTV, another manages a grocery store – and each year they return as volunteers for Cheer.

The Sturms are not alone. Of the more than 200 volunteers and the 150 families who contributed to Cheer this year, several are former recipients of the organization’s generosity. One of its staunchest volunteers once lived in a car with two kids; another had a close brush with cancer and still has several tumors on her back. Many others have experienced Christmases that would have had little cheer without Cheer for Children.

“A lot of our families have had traumas,” said Donna Dawick, who along with Denise Shiroma and Kathryn Harrison heads up the organization.

Cheer for Children is an unusual non-profit. It has zero administrative costs and is as grassroots as possible. It was founded in 1984 by Pam Edwards, who plowed through her own battle with Lupus to launch what has become one of the South Bay’s most beloved charities. Edwards passed away seven years ago, but her large spirit is still a guiding force – a sort of can-do, against all odds pluck that somehow manages to care for thousands of children each year.

This year was harder than usual. According to Harrison, the calls for help started coming earlier, and from all over the world – from Scotland, and Pennsylvania, and throughout the U.S.

“Christmas is just not in the picture for a lot of people this year,” Harrison said. “A lot of people are having difficulty just buying food. They just really want something for their kids…They start sobbing on the phone. Donna and I cry almost every night.”

One family called to ask for an early Christmas for their daughter, who was dying and wasn’t likely to make it to Dec. 25. But tears are shed not only for the pain they hear in people’s voices asking for help, but for the large-heartedness they encounter every day of this holiday season. People who are themselves struggling financially are giving extraordinarily this year, Harrison said, noting that one person who is himself unemployed insisted on writing a check to help others have a better Christmas.

“This is really striking this year how people are giving…I think people see all the suffering and they want to help any way they can,” Harrison said.

Harrison and Dawick wrap presents and answer phones every night at the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. And almost every night, something happens that reminds them why they do what they do, giving themselves over year after year to something that can only be described as the spirit of Christmas.

Dawick recalled a man asking to adopt a family. She described a family with a little girl who wanted a particular doll, and the man agreed to shop for it. He arrived at the Chamber one night with both the doll and his six-year-old son in tow. The boy shook hands with the Cheer volunteers, but he did so with a closed fist. Finally his father said, “Okay, son, you can open your hand now.” The boy opened his hand to reveal $5.50 – the entirety of his piggy bank, which he’d earned painting baseboards (“Because he is so little,” Dawick noted) for his father. He gave all the money to Cheer for Children.

“It was just so sweet,” Dawick said.

Last Saturday, most of the volunteers were youth from Narbonne, Carson, and St. Mary’s high schools. Harrison explained so many of the kids were Cheer volunteer veterans that the adults barely had to tell them how to do anything – they set up the event, and as hundreds of families began streaming through, the kids ran the show. They had the gift of giving down pat.

“We are just continually amazed,” Harrison said, “at what people give.”

Upstairs, Santa was again doing the soft-shoe. He had a twinkle in his eye. He remembered his own hard times, and as he gave presents to the struggling little patients who came to visit him from the pediatric unit, he hoped that they too might one day come full circle.

“This,” he said, “is the most generous organization I have ever been associated with…It’s way fun, to give.” ER



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